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Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday after she was freed in a high-profile prisoner swap after nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday after she was freed in a high-profile prisoner swap after nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.

The deal, which swapped her for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, secured the release of the most prominent American imprisoned abroad and achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US could not win the freedom of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned for almost four years.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star. Her status as an openly gay black woman jailed in a country where authorities were hostile to the LBGTQ community injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal history and brought unprecedented attention to the wrongfully incarcerated population.

Biden’s approval to release Bout, the Russian criminal nicknamed “Death Merchant,” underscored the heightened urgency his administration faced to bring Griner home, particularly following the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent rendition to a penitentiary colony.

Griner was seen getting off a plane that landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas on Friday.

The athlete, who also played professional basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil. Prior to her sentencing, the US State Department declared Griner “unlawfully detained” — a charge Russia strongly denies.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the exchange on Thursday, saying in a statement from Russian news outlets that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout was flown home.

Biden spoke to Griner over the phone. US officials said she was being offered specialized medical services and counseling.

With the release of Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who the Justice Department once described as one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States in 2010.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US officials said would be used against Americans.

After Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July, but had to face trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She admitted in court that she possessed canisters of cannabis oil, but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team submitted written statements that her cannabis had been prescribed to treat pain.


Tucker reported from Washington.

Lekan Oyekanmi and Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

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